Southern Entrepreneurs: The Kennickell Group

Most entrepreneurs agree that timing is everything. Meet some of the south's most successful that have changed with the times or hit the market at just the right moment. 

When Al Kennickell took over his family’s 100-year-old printing business in the early 1980s, he didn’t relax into the role.

Always looking for an edge, The Kennickell Group, was one of the first printers in the United States to become ISO 9000 certified back in the 1990s. But it remained a local business. Virtually, all of its business was ink on paper for customers within 50 miles.

“Being on the coast, we only had a half of a radius to start with. We already had most of the local business, so unless someone new moved to town, we weren’t going to grow,” Kennickell said.

Add the threat of the Internet and he knew the company had to expand its market and offer products outside of printing.

“We didn’t wait until we were in a problem situation,” Kennickell said. “What happened to a lot of people in my industry was they waited too long. They were already beaten down. They didn’t have the resources to change and banks didn’t want to lend them money.”

The company was able to buy an 83,000-square-foot facility as a fulfillment center and hired software developers to create online storefronts. Clients’ dealers and sales teams could order online the brochures they needed and Kennickell shipped directly to them. The company also formed a direct mail house, sending out millions of mail pieces per year for customers.

Kennickell formed partnerships with ISO 9000–certified printers around the world so work didn’t have to be shipped long distances. For example, Kennickell is working with a printer in Amsterdam for a Canadian customer on a job shipping to Turkey.

Kennickell also embraced wide-format printing while others shunned the low-
volume work.

“What we found is this is a great market that is growing rapidly,” Kennickell said. “We now print banners, large posters, and other point-of-purchase products. We added van, truck and bus wraps as well as murals and displays. You will see our work all over airports, museums and corporate offices.”

They also began printing custom wallpaper, a popular product in Europe that is catching on in the States.

“We invested heavily in equipment to provide this product. We now are doing custom wallpaper for schools, businesses, hotels and interior designers. This is a market I would never have guessed we would ever have entered, but here we are.”

Today, The Kennickell Group is 10 times larger than it was when Al Kennickell took the reins. He relies on his management team of David Rosenblum and Jana Johnson, both of whom have been with the company for about 30 years. And it’s still very much a family business. Al’s wife, Terri , and nephew Trip Kennickell are part of the sales team; his daughter Kacey Kennickell Ray runs the direct mail operations; and his sister Karen Kennickell Wessinger is part of the customer service team.

“Once we started making changes to a company that had been operating for over 100 years and tasting success, it was easy to continue to make changes. We did not shy away from anything if it made sense. We have had to learn a lot of new things, but that is OK. Most people are too lazy to spend the time and effort to keep learning. That means there are more opportunities for those of us who are willing to work.”

To read more about The Kennickell Group, subscribe now or pick up the August/September issue of South magazine.